Sunday, November 30, 2003

School powers tested in court

Student was expelled for off-campus acts

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Lori Brewer isn't happy her son went to watch a street fight in early September.

But she says Northwest Local School District officials went too far when they expelled the Colerain High School senior for two months for a fight that happened off school property and was not tied to any school activity.

She's challenging the expulsion in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court and is asking a judge to put 18-year-old Tyler back in school, where he is a star wrestler.

Brewer's lawsuit draws into question how much control a school has over students outside of the classroom.

"It's a gray area," said Mark Gooden, who teaches school law at the University of Cincinnati. "The only time they have authority is when the conduct has a nexus to school environment."

But school officials point to the district's code of conduct. It clearly states that a school can govern a student's conduct at all times - on or off school property - and specifically when the conduct is related to the health and safety of other students, school employees or when it disrupts the educational process.

School officials said during a court hearing that Tyler created a safety issue at the school because the fight involved a gun that parents of other students feared he had then brought to school. And he made the problem worse, they said, when he refused to cooperate with school authorities.

Judge Norbert Nadel said he will make a decision in Tyler's case Monday.

If Nadel denies the request to reinstate Tyler, he likely will not graduate and will lose the chance for an athletic scholarship, his mother said.

A fight, a gun, a charge

The expulsion dates back to the weekend of Sept. 12 when a group of 50 to 75 students met off campus to fight. Someone had a gun. Tyler took it and gave it to an adult, said his lawyer, Paul Balash.

Tyler said the gun was not his. He said he took it from another student and gave it to an adult so nobody would get shot.

After the fight, Tyler was arrested on a charge of grand theft of a firearm, but the charge was dismissed earlier this month, according to Balash.

High School Principal Maureen Heintz investigated the incident on behalf of the school after a parent expressed concern that Tyler had the gun at school. Her investigation led to Tyler's expulsion on eight violations of the student conduct code, including possession of a weapon, falsifying information and the commission of a crime.

Besides the school's concern about the gun and Tyler's refusal to cooperate, officials said he had been in trouble at the school before. While the officials did not elaborate, Tyler's parents say his past problems were for minor infractions like parking violations.

The fight, his refusal to cooperate and his other discipline problems all factored into the school's decision to expel him.

Tyler, a star wrestler, ranked fifth in the state last year and is ranked 30th nationally in his weight class. Because of the expulsion, he missed second quarter, and without grades from the previous quarter, the Ohio High School Athletic Association says he cannot wrestle.

His coach, Rick Stegmaier, called Tyler one of the most talented wrestlers he has ever seen.

Several colleges - including the United States Military Academy - have expressed interest in him, according to Balash.

Big Brother tactics

But the school said it stands by its decision. And stands behind its code of conduct.

Gooden, though, said he thinks an argument can be made that the code is too far-reaching.

For instance, Gooden said, if a student had been shot in the off-campus fight, the courts would not have held the school district liable.

A similar issue came to light at the college level earlier this year when a handful of University of Cincinnati students were arrested on rioting charges after cars were overturned and cardboard was set on fire at an off-campus Cinco de Mayo party.

University regulations permit officials to suspend, expel or mandate counseling for students who commit serious crimes off campus. It's unclear if those college students were expelled in that case because disciplinary records are not public information.

At least one other local school district has a code of conduct similar to Northwest's.

The student code of conduct at Mason City Schools in Warren County specifically refers to any behavior that threatens a student or faculty member - whether at school or not.

Shelly Hausman, a spokeswoman for the school district, said she can't remember that part of the code being questioned.

The code of conduct at Cincinnati Public Schools and Princeton City School District are not so extensive.

"It has to be a school-sponsored activity, not just Princeton kids at a party," said Chris Gramke, a spokesman for Princeton Schools. The one exception is an athlete's use of alcohol or drugs; both are forbidden anywhere under the school's alcohol policy, Gramke said.

No one - including him - disputes that Tyler made a poor decision.

"We're not here to say he made a good decision, we're not here to say he should not be punished," Balash said. "But he has been punished.

"He wants to go back to school."


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